Now that we’ve had two babies spend time in the NICU (124 days between the two of them), I wanted to take some time to write a little guide for ourselves and anyone else who may find themselves spending any extended amount of time with a baby in the NICU.
If you have a clue ahead of time that baby might come early, my best advice is to plan ahead as much as possible. Cook and freeze meals, the more, the better. Make sure you have everything prepared for when Baby comes home. Errands are no fun once Baby is born. Figure out a workable routine, find out if you (or your spouse ) can work from home, and set up any extra help or baby sitters.
When Baby Comes
When Baby is born, the first thing to do is take a deep breath and process a little. A new baby changes everything, but a new baby in the NICU really changes everything. Once you’ve had a chance to take a deep breath (and decide on a name!), it’s time to make some phone calls. Announcing the birth of you child is exciting and when Baby comes early it’s even more of a surprise to those on the other end of the line. When I called my mom to tell her that Lydia was born (nine weeks early), she answered the phone by saying, “What do you know about puppies?”. My sister’s new puppy had just hurt her foot and my mom was trying to decide if she needed to take her to the vet. It was pretty comical (later).
If your baby is healthy and doing well, considering the circumstances (just trust what the doctors tell you) make sure you start off every announcement with that information. And halfway through, you should say it again. And then, before you hang up or say goodbye, say it again. Most people don’t know much about premature babies. I certainly didn’t. And they don’t know how critical of a condition your baby is actually in.
Believe the Doctors
The first question everyone has about a preemie is, “How long will we have to stay in the NICU?”. Doctors don’t like to give out false hope or unrealistic expectations, and their estimates are usually pretty good. For Lydia, they guessed 6-8 weeks, and she came home in 6. For Abby, they guessed 8-12 weeks, and she came home in 11 1/2.
However, both our girls started out fantastically. Every day we came in to hear praise about how well they were doing. We let it get to our heads and figured, surely, they would be home sooner than the original estimate. But the NICU is a roller coaster with unexpected turns, and both times the doctors were ultimately right. When I asked Dan what his best NICU advice was, it was to listen to the doctors estimate and don’t doubt it even if your baby seems to be doing amazing.
The First Week
The first week always feels like a whirlwind to us. First Baby comes, then there are announcements and visitors. You get to watch everyone’s reaction to your news and share your story. But after a couple of days, and you head home from the hospital, you have to get a plan together for how you’re going to handle your NICU stay. When Abby was born, both my parents and Dan’s parents came down at different times to watch Lydia and help around the house while I recovered. We would have completely fallen apart without that help.
During that week I sat down on Excel and figured out a tentative schedule that allowed us to visit Abby twice a day. We had to see if Dan could get in eight hours of work each day. It turns out he could, but only by working six days a week, getting up early, and going to bed late. If you do this, don’t forget to account for drive time. It was not uncommon for either Dan or I to spend over two hours in the car every day between driving to work, the hospital, home, and Lydia’s Babysitter’s.
Also during the first week, my parents took me grocery shopping. We stocked up on food for the next four weeks. I also got to ride around Meijer in one of their little electric scooters.
It’s OK to Cry
When I have babies in the NICU, I cry. I cry when they are admitted. I cry when they are not doing well. And I cry, even when they are. It’s sad. It’s hard. Your baby is supposed to be at home or in your belly. Not in an isolette. So it’s ok to cry.
I talked to a NICU mom once who had been in the NICU for two months already. They had a long road ahead and I empathized with her. She smiled and light-heartedly told me it was “sort of fun” to have a baby in the NICU. I hid my shock, but in my mid-NICU-super-emotional state, I felt like she had no heart.
I saw another Mom standing at her baby’s isolette, just watching her baby sleep. She was crying. I always liked that Mom after that, because it was so obvious how much she loved her baby boy.
Now, I’m all for having a good attitude and looking on the bright side. But you don’t have to pretend everything is perfect. It’s ok to cry.
Feeding Your Baby
Feeding times are the times you really want to be in the NICU. This is when you get to change your baby’s diaper, take your baby’s temperature, and, once your baby is stable enough, hold him or her. Once babies are over a week old, they usually have their feeding time every three hours.
Mothers of preemies aren’t able to nurse their babies so they have to express milk with a pump to be fed to their baby through a feeding tube. Lactations consultants recommend pumping every three hours, around the clock. I found that it works best to pump one hour after Baby’s feeding time, so that you can be involved with the hands-on part and not skip a pumping time. I also found that, once the milk supply is established and if it’s plentiful enough, it worked well to pump an hour early before bed and and hour late afterward so that you could have a couple of four hour stretches during the night.
Dan and I like to be at the hospital at least twice a day. This way we could each get a turn holding the Baby, and we could often be there for rounds. We got a morning update on how the night went and an evening update on how the day went.
What about Meals?
I’m sure a lot of NICU parents just eat out for every meal during their NICU stay. Dan and I avoided this for two reasons. One: it’s more expensive. Two: It’s much less healthy. And during the chaos of a NICU stay, eating junk won’t make things any better but it can make things a lot worse.
To handle this issue I made a meal plan of fast, easy-to-put-together meals for one week. We ate things like spaghetti, rice and beans, curry with frozen veggies and a store-bought sauce, veggies and hummus, and chili (which was the most time consuming meal and I wouldn’t choose that one again). And we repeated it every week until Abby came home. We would go grocery shopping once a month or so to buy the non-perishables. For the fresh produce, we asked a family from church to buy our groceries once a week and deliver them to us at church. They graciously continued to do this for the entire time Abby was in the NICU.
We also had one night a week when we ate Qdoba using gift cards given to us by loving friends from church. Those nights were my favorite. No preparation and no clean up.
With Abby we had another challenge of taking a care of a toddler while visiting the NICU. It worked best for us to bring Lydia once a day and leave her with a sitter during our second visit. Our favorite way to do this was to take her in the morning. In the evening we would eat dinner together and tuck her into bed. Then the baby sitters would come and stay while Lydia slept and we went to the hospital. We had such loving sitters who also tidied our messy living room, cleaned our dishes, and did our laundry. Those nights were also my favorites.
We found that it was very important to spend one-on-one time with Lydia. Snuggling, reading, tickling, talking, and playing were very important because she was getting much less Mommy and Daddy time than before. Sometimes she would scream from her bed at night, but we realized it wasn’t because she was being “bad”, it was because she was having trouble coping with our being away so much. So on those nights I would snuggle her extra until she was ready to sleep.
Get to Know Parents and Nurses
One of the most therapeutic things Dan and I chose to do was to make friends in the NICU. Time in the NICU passes slowly, but having another baby to cheer on helps a lot. Talking to other parents is encouraging, distracting, and helps pass the days. We had a lot of fun celebrating when our friends would move to an open crib or take their first bottle.
It also helps to make friends with the nurses. They are the people you’ll see the most and they are the ones caring for your (very) little bundle. It’s a lot better to have friends watch your baby than strangers. We also discovered that nurses which we didn’t care for at first, grew on us as we got to know them.
Once we transferred to Mott’s, we had trouble getting to know our nurses. It was just a less-friendly atmosphere. So we made an extra effort and brought them chocolate. That helped a lot. We also befriended Russell, the parking lot attendant.
The house is trashed. The sink is full of dishes. The laundry isn’t folded. Take a nap.
Someone just called your phone. A delivery man knocked on the door. You didn’t get to shower today. Take a nap anyway.
Some things just have to wait. Sleep isn’t one of them. Life in the NICU is hard enough without being exhausted. And, even with naps you’re still not going to get enough sleep, so take them!
Turn to Jesus
Even if you follow all of my NICU advice and think of fifteen other helpful things, having a baby in the NICU is still rough. Our greatest source of strength and hope rested in Jesus Christ. God is, after all, the Great Physician, and even if doctors fail, He never will. He knit together that Baby in Mom’s womb, and He can keep knitting that Baby together out of it.
Many times, I felt like everything was falling apart, and I didn’t even know what to pray. But I remember riding in the car, looking up at the night sky and silently crying out, “Help me! Help us! We need Your help!” Sometimes the change wasn’t instant, but He always came. He always helped.
Times when I felt so down I knew no one could offer me any comfort and He would. Through a song in the car, through a sermon at church, or through some unexpected blessing, He would carry us along.
The Roller Coaster Must End Sometime
There were times when I seriously thought Abby would never come home from the hospital. I thought she would just stay there forever, not finishing her bottles, not gaining weight, not keeping her temperature up. It’s silly, I know. But that’s how it felt.
Life in the NICU is a roller coaster ride. There are unexpected turns, and many ups and downs. But, the roller coaster will end. There will be a time when you will stop taking those car rides to the hospital every day. There will be a day when you have time to wash your own dishes and do your own grocery shopping. It’s true, what they say, that there are no kindergarteners in the NICU.
I hope this post will be useful for some. Or perhaps it can give others a glimpse into NICU life. And if not, thanks for bearing with me. If Dan and I have another baby I know that we will, at least, find this to be a great help.